International Conference on Cohesive Societies

Need to nurture, expand our common spaces: DPM Heng Swee Keat

Fault lines are growing but global community must work together to combat them, he says

Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat speaking at the International Conference on Cohesive Societies, on June 21, 2019. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Building an inclusive, cohesive society is always a work in progress, both in Singapore and the wider world, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said yesterday.

This is why leaders and others must come together to learn from one another, share best practices and tackle common challenges, he added at the close of the three-day inaugural International Conference on Cohesive Societies.

Pointing to today's global challenges, he said unprecedented levels of trade, technological advancement and migration have combined in a way that has not worked for some, fuelling tension and conflict.

Fault lines have deepened, made worse by the ease with which falsehoods and extremist ideas proliferate online and are exploited.

"Increasingly, nationalism and intolerance are displacing openness and harmony," he added.

He cited supremacist hate groups and rising hostility to minorities generating a vicious circle of conflict, a factor which led President Halimah Yacob to suggest the event to discuss ways to deepen harmony in and across societies grappling with diversity.

Mr Heng, who is also Finance Minister, said common challenges can be tackled well only if the global community works together, stressing that mutual trust and respect, as well as deeper understanding and harmony, are the foundations on which such efforts must be based.

"To combat extremist and intolerant views, we must work together to create an ever widening ripple of understanding, trust and respect," he said. "Just as each society achieves more together than as disparate individuals, the global community achieves more together when all societies can pursue common goals and tackle common challenges."

Mr Heng added that every society will need to find its own path to cohesion, shaped by its history, context, culture and demands.

He pointed out that throughout human history, many societies that embraced their diversity thrived - like the Malacca Sultanate in the 15th century, whose inhabitants came from all over, bringing with them their unique religious beliefs, intermarrying and exchanging cultures.

As for Singapore, he said, it is becoming more diverse, and this means its common spaces will "be harder to maintain, and must be deliberately nurtured and expanded".

"As our racial and religious demographics shift, so too must our approach to building bridges and encouraging discourse," he added.

Mr Heng noted there are now more interfaith families in Singapore - an opportunity to deepen mutual understanding.

Also, 22 per cent of marriages are between people of different ethnic groups, and nearly 20 per cent of Singaporeans do not identify with a religion. He said: "We must learn to include their perspectives in our discourses."

He also outlined Singapore's approach to deepen cohesion.

First, it expands common spaces and shared experiences, while preserving racial and religious diversity. Next, it is vigilant to guard against forces that can tear society apart, including establishing institutional structures that prevent groups or individuals from exploiting racial and religious fault lines.

Lastly, the Government works to provide Singaporeans with better lives and to ensure all share in the fruits of progress.

"In growing our economy, we put a special focus on creating good jobs for all Singaporeans, regardless of which community they belong to," he said.

"Some workers have benefited more from this growth than others. This is why we continue to work hard to address social inequality, to better distribute the fruits of growth."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 22, 2019, with the headline Need to nurture, expand our common spaces: DPM Heng Swee Keat. Subscribe